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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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This project is evolving. Our daily dispatches coverage has been retired. Click here to see what happened in the area between mid October and January 1, 2006.

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Broken slot machines and torn insulation remain at Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis. Click "play" to see more of the interior and hear manager John Chaszar tell a story about getting money out of the flooded casino. To see slot machines demolished after sustaining damage from Katrina, click here.

Looters in New Orleans walked away with millions of dollars worth of food, clothing, electronics and even guns after Hurricane Katrina, but a huge pile of cold, hard cash was left untouched at the Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis.

For five days, hundreds of cash-filled boxes from the evacuated casino’s slot machines stood unguarded in the wrecked hotel lobby building, vulnerable to “anyone with a sledgehammer,” said John Chaszar, senior director of resort operations.

Finally a team of Casino Magic employees came back to the property with a rental truck, power generators and shovels. As three heavily armed state troopers stood guard and a helicopter gunship circled overhead, workers dug out the cash boxes and hauled them away. When all the money was washed and counted, it came to nearly $1.4 million in bills and another $700,000 in coins, said a chuckling Chaszar.

The fact that so much easy cash could be overlooked by would-be criminals speaks not only to the virtue of the people of south Mississippi but also to the relative isolation of the city’s only casino, tucked away on a 600-acre riverside plot northwest of the town’s historic older section and several blocks off the main highway.

“We have the best situation possible,” said Mayor Eddie Favre. “We have experienced the benefits of the casino, but if you don’t know where it is you won’t find it. It has taken nothing away from the city’s charm and atmosphere.”

While the casino may be out of sight, it is never far from the minds of Favre and the city’s other political and business heavyweights. With more than 1,200 employees before Katrina, the casino was by far the biggest employer in the city of 8,200. Equally important, taxes on gambling profits and other revenues counted for about half the city’s $7 million annual general budget, sharply limiting property tax rates for home and business owners.

But that revenue stream was washed away when Katrina inundated the casino property with up to 18 feet of water, wrecking two low-rise hotel buildings, smashing several dozen boats in the marina and tossing a giant entertainment barge like a toy ship, leaving it stranded in the woods two miles across the Jourdan River.

Main barge destroyed, tower damaged
The main casino barge was destroyed, and the 14-story hotel tower was left badly damaged along with several restaurants, a 10,000-square-foot ballroom, spa and golf course. Even hundreds of warehoused slot machines were damaged and later destroyed entirely for insurance requirements.

Now, the future of the property is uncertain, although company officials say they are committed to rebuilding.

The golf course is being patched up to reopen Dec. 15, although more permanent repairs will be required next year. Officials are working on plans for a temporary land-based casino in the land-based former lobby building, which they hope to open “in the latter half of next year,” Chaszar said.

Beyond that, corporate parent Penn National Gaming has announced no plans, although there is plenty of available land to develop and officials have discussed possibilities including an expanded marina and a condominium resort complex.

Employees like advertising production manager Mary Hudson, who has been with the casino since soon after its 1992 opening, can only wait and hope the rebuilding moves ahead quickly, as she and all but a few dozen core staff members will be officially dropped from the payroll this week.

“It’s been very hard for me not being there,” said Hudson, 46. “I’m hoping they will give me a call.”

Like many casino companies, Penn National agreed to continue paying its employees for three months after the storm hit, a period that officially came to an end Tuesday.

Hudson was a divorced mother raising three children when she moved to Bay St. Louis in the early 1990s to be closer to her parents, who had retired to the area from Oklahoma. When she was offered a casino job by an executive she met in a bar she was extremely skeptical, but she followed up with a telephone call and has been at the Casino Magic ever since.

Her first job at the casino included boarding tour buses and explaining to visitors how to get their coin rolls and where to find the buffet.

“I started at $7 an hour and stepped up quite a bit to where I felt I finally felt I had made it,” she said. “I was feeling: I’m there. And it was a good feeling.”

Now remarried, she is fortunate that her husband is working but said she feels “a little lost.” Like thousands of Hancock County residents she is living in a government-issued trailer after her house was severely damaged by water from the storm.

She and her husband plan to rebuild but also are considering moving to higher ground elsewhere in the county. She felt “very close” to the casino and its staff and misses that part of her life.

“We’re in kind of a limbo state right now,” she said.

Chaszar, who manages non-casino operations at the property and is president of the county chamber of commerce, is an outspoken proponent of condominiums on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast and has ambitious ideas about development.

At a recent chamber board meeting – the first one held since Katrina – he sketched out a future in which the region would boom like Myrtle Beach, S.C., after Hurricane Hugo, with “lots of commerce, lots of golf courses.”

“I hate to say it but a lot of the opposition to condominiums has been washed away” with the storm, said Chaszar, a New Jersey native who moved to the area about four years ago to help run the casino complex.

'We can put condos anywhere'
Even if condos are ruled out along the waterfront in Bay St. Louis, “We can put condominiums anywhere we want on our property,” he said.

Mayor Favre agreed with that assessment and said he would not stand in the way of expanded development at the casino complex. The casino property is zoned for “resort” development, although no specific plans for condos or any other structures have been filed with the city, either before or since the storm.

City officials say grass-roots opposition to condominiums stems mainly from a fear that the small-town character of Bay St. Louis will be stamped out by cookie-cutter high-rise towers on the beachfront that would blot out unobstructed sunset views across the water.

The casino’s existing 14-story hotel tower is not visible from the city’s main beachfront area about two miles away.

Pressure for additional resort-type development that emerged before Katrina is likely to grow as some developers may sense an opportunity in the wake of the storm.

“I can promise you there is a lot of interest in condominium development along the Gulf Coast,” Chaszar said at the chamber meeting.

“My personal feeling is that condos are going to happen whether we like it or not,” he said in an interview. “We might as well control it.”

But as cash-starved city and county governments struggle to rebuild their tax bases as quickly as possible, they could find that balance hard to attain.

While it is far from clear what Bay St. Louis will look like five years from now, many residents can point to what they do not want: A strip of high-rise beachfront condo towers like those that line the waterfront in places like Destin, Fla., or Gulf Shores, Ala.

U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, who lost his own Bay St. Louis home in the storm, points to Gulf Shores as a worst-case scenario – having gone from two-and three-story buildings to high-rise towers after Hurricane Frederick swept through in 1979.

“I do not want that to happen to Bay St. Louis,” said Taylor. “I will scream that from the mountaintops. Gulf Shores is a nice place to visit, but I would think it’s a horrible place to live.”

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68 COMMENTS

Tell me, what happened to all of the money in the casinos in New Orleans and the rest of the state of Louisiana that were affected by the ruins of the storm and the levee breaks.

It seems as though the media has played up the fact that looters were in the state of Louisiana but the people who commandeered a boat or any other items of support, be it food, water or clothing in other areas were doing it so call legally. I beg to differ with you.

Let's be for real. The media has really shown a one sided view of the city of New Orleans and its people, especially the African American community. I would love for someone to contact me so that I can show them where I lived and the area my parents home to prove that there has not been a true showing of all of the people of New Orleans.

Please don't allow high rise condominiums to be built in Bay St. Louis. We visit there every year and would not want to see a replica of Gulf Shores!

This no surprise to me that the people of Mississippi did not act out like the people of New Orleans. Please don't get me wrong their are good and bad people everywhere. I also live on the gulf coast and have lived through several hurricanes. They are horrible, but when all is said and done all we can do is come together as a community. From what I saw and see today the people of Mississippi did that, the people of New Orleans did not. They either stayed and abused each other, or ran out on their fellow man. Even their own mayor!! I work for a major utility that has been heavily impacted by Katrina. I listen to customers all day. Most in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida know we are doing all we can, but the people of Louisiana want it done TODAY. Get real Louisiana it was a major disaster. These are the same people that want something for nothing. If you can "vent" at hard working people that are doing their best to get your service back on then you can use that energy in other ways like helping your fellow man!

Please don't build up Bay St. Louis. I had a house there and we went almost every weekend. It was a beautiful city, and if we can build it back the way it was we can continue to enjoy the peacefulness and hospitallity that it offered!

I can only hope that during the rebuilding process that more stringet bldg codes will be in place.Also more blg inspectors will be hired so that one or two insps will not be required to check numerous projects at the same time

My heart and prayers go out to all the good people that were hurt by this terrible storm. The companies and people that were affected will pull themselves together and work together to make the Mississippi Gulf Coast better than it was before. But please remember another storm will hit again. We just do not know when. God bless all you good and brave people.

Heres a neat idea. Sinse Katrina ruined the casino, why not let the money recovered help those ruined by Katrina. Put the money recovered back to work for the people of Mississippi and the gulf coast. Buy more equiptment & hire operators to help move all the debris in Gulf port, Long Beach, Pass Christian all the way to the border. Waveland was basicly destroyed, help those folks out. You don't need to rebuild that area bigger & better. Just rebuild smarter. It's one of the most beautiful areas of the country. Don't let big business ruin it.

I strongly agree with Cheyenne, Florida.

The people of Louisiana, specifically New Orleans, wave the banner of poverty around like a shield, excusing them for their own terrible shortcomings demonstrated during a time of crisis. Their local government failed them and was not held accountable. I know that any mayor of any Florida city who did not act in a timely way to forcibly evacuate citizens in the face of certain peril, would soon be held accountable and would be out of office.

The worst is the brazen, unlawful behavior. It speaks volumes as to the community's standards of ethics and conduct. Why is it claiming poverty today entitles people to waive their resposibility to act with common sense and decency. Even tribes in the Amazon who are uneducated and have no money, act with unity and decency toward each other? Certainly one wouldn't argue that those people involved in the issues of New Orleans have less education or or more impoverished?

I'm certain their will be many liberal viewpoints ready to intellectualize the issue, point fingers and spew anger, but their only sound answer to these problems is more self-dependence and hold local government to higher standards of responsibility. Quit empowering the weak to be weak.

I was also a resident of Bay St. Louis and loved the small town charm..I believe that the quiet beaches keep people coming back home..build the condo away from the beach above the interstate where they will be safe from a storm surge..and leave the beaches to the birds and mother nature..build homes and restore the small business first..

Looting obviously went on in both places, however, to be sure, it was much worse in New Orleans. I live outside of Houston, and am having to live with these "survivors" they are causing such a drain on this area because many of them refuse to work, won't go back to New Orleans to help out. Many of them want it all done for them.

I can understand a certain amount of grieving after such a horrific storm, but it's time to jump up and get of the can and get to work fixing what needs fixing and not waiting for someone to do it for you!

May a better tommorrow be had by all.

I stumbled onto Bay St Louis by accident on one of my trips to Biloxi. After that, it was my favorite place to visit. I always went to the casino Magic there instead of elsewhere because the people who worked there treated you like people & not just another dollar. Customer service was important to the employees, after all the gamblers were the reason they had jobs & they acted like they appreciated you coming there. I hope they build back the casino & the whole town because it was a great place to visit.

This reply is for Cheyenne from Florida. I live south of New Orleans and don't appreciate the comment about "Louisianians" wanting services TODAY. I am waiting patiently for my assistance from where ever it may come. I lost everything I own. I do not like being included in anything about New Orleans either.

We live in an area of Southwest Missouri that was total wiped out in May, 2003. We have been dealing on a reconstruction project through FEMA and SEMA. I will admit that the without the financial help they gave us we would not have been able to rebuild a lot of the properties that had been destroyed. But, it has taken at least 1000 sheets of paper and usually about 1 or 2 phone calls a month the complete the project and we are still waiting on the final check. Why does it take so long? Paper...we have so many sheets of paper that I was forced to buy a plastic box just to keep the information in. What ever happened to the paper reduction act? If we could figure out how to file something without having to make 2 and 3 copies the process could go faster. I hate to think of what some of these people are going through and it was definitely as bad or worse than we had it. Going without a home oar a place to work out of is a very difficult situation. We were only without power for a week. Most of us were lucky enough to have family or another place to stay. Now that it is over and everthing is reconstructed it is better than before. The initial shock is gone and we have moved on.

I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and for the past 12 years live in Bay St Louis, Mississippi. I love both of these cities and would never sacrifice neither for the other. New Orleans has it's share of issues as does the Mississippi coast but please don't blame every citizen of the city of New Orleans for the unruly acts of the lawbreaker. There are many beautiful, wonderful, honest people in New Orleans and it's surrounding communities, including my own sister! Many residents of New Orleans settle in
Bay St Louis and nearby coastal areas upon retirement and/or had summer homes here prior to Hurricane Katrina's destruction. Perhaps that explains the casino Magic here in Bay St Louis not being vandalized nor robbed, a lot of native New Orleanians residing here just a different class? Many of my neighbors appreciates and love the city of New Orleans it's character, flair, and charm. As for me personally I visit the Quarter anytime the opportunity presents itself. The history within the Quarter is like no other, so is the structural architecture, and any experience there is sure to prove memorable. The food, culture, and musical talent of New Orleans are without doubt the best....so please "leave New Orleans alone"..... If you must speak out on something, find the good things to speak on. There is ample good in all things, if you only seek it out!

Ditto above letter. We had a place there. I lived there during the week while working. It was my wife's special "get-away" place. The Bay is/was a wonderful place. And no, we don't want to see the beauty denigrated by a bunch of high-rise condos. It can be enticing and beautiful again. It's going to take us people who have a vested interest in it to rebuild it.

I served in the Oklahoma Army national guard and was sent to New Orleans for hurricane Katrina relief. After we arrived, we restored order and helped rescue people. Now its time for the country to continue to help the people of New Orleans in the clean up effort. They can't do it on their own, they need help.

with almost everyone considering condos as the way to go, are the local businesses(casinos)going to provide the pay necessary to live in the condos or are they going to import the tenants. we need jobs with affordable housing. it would be a shame if our officials let the coast become the new Las Vegas Strip

Why do we not hear of all the problems the State of Mississippi and the other Gulf States are having to face? All we seem to hear on the news is about New Orleans and its problems? The reason why is pretty simple;Mississippi is doing it the right way they are helping them selves and not looking for hand outs. Look I truly feel for the folks of Louisiana;I have a lot of family in the state and my heart goes out to the residents of New Orleans,I want the city make a come back for the peoples sake and for my own personal reasons(had many a great times in The Big Easy). With all that said we need to call a spade a spade,The City New Orleans and the State of Louisiana fumbled the ball on this entire disaster. What did they expect when they built an entire city below sea level and rerouted an entire river...and then act surprised when the city floods? The worst part of this entire mess is the overwhelming fact that neither the local or state government officials seem have a single or plausible contingency plan to put in effect for this type of disaster,that they have been made aware of for years could happen. The Army Corps of Engineers have been saying forever that the levies needed to be strengthened or replaced.No instead the Louisiana state,City of New Orleans officials and it residents blast the federal government for poor response times.I say come election time the people of the great State of Louisiana need to elect a new Governor and a Mayor.

All I would like to say is, the people that had their hand out before the storms, still have their hand out. God will not help people, that will not help themselves. Please pray and help our fellow man, including yourself. Remember God is in Control.

My heart goes out to the people along the Mississippi Gulf coast. They are a caring people. My daughter lives in Gulfport and I have visited there and found the area just beautiful. America needs to assist in helping Mississippi get back on her feet.

I wasnt there when the storms hit but i can say that when something like this happens we need to come together as a community and help each other out other wise then what is the purpose of us being a community. When something big happens to us and this is where you see were all the money hungry people come from. They should put there money to good use and help others rebuild!!!!!!!!! Not try and build new condos. Help put people in jobs.

All we have seen or hear about on the news has been about Katrina, Katrina, katrina.
There was little looting, no deaths during Hurricane Rita. You would think it didn't happen to Southwest Louisiana & South East Texas unless you are trying to live here.
We offered shelter to many of the Katrina evacuees who thanked us by damage or destroying the buildings they occupied. It was unfit to use when we needed it.

I to am from Baton Rouge and lost a home that has been in our family for 30 + years. Luckily I was insured but the $ 250,0000 for structure and the $ 100,000 contents coverage will not fully replace my losses. We plan to rebuild bigger and smarter. I do not think that a Gulf Shores approach is the answer. However, property owners are going to have to think outside of the box with smart rebuilding ideas. People like the peacefulness and hospitality which I believe can be retained even with condominium zones. Picture this get rid of the trailers and homes that don't meet basic building codes and rebuild with something that we can all be proud of that will retain the character of the community.

I would rather not have condominiums all over the area!
Also, I tend to believe the reasons that the slot machines were not looted was not necessarily because the people are better. Because good and bad are everywhere. But more likely that they believed all the machines had been emptied well before the storm arrived. It would certainly have made more sense!

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